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Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

posted Aug 21, 2010, 4:49 PM by Tayo Jolaoso   [ updated Aug 22, 2010, 12:00 AM ]
This past October, I visited China as a part of an American-Chinese Multi-Faith Religious Exchange that was sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., and the Baptist Joint Committee. For nearly two weeks, 13 of us — Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist — met with our counterpart Chinese religious leaders as well as governmental officials to discuss religion and religious liberty both in China and the United States. I also welcomed the opportunity to present two papers on religious liberty and pluralism in the United States to Chinese scholars in Beijing and Shanghai.

Evaluating the state of religion and religious liberty in China is a dicey endeavor. 

It is often said that everything you hear about China is probably true somewhere in China. China’s 1.3 billion population with 56 ethnic groups strewn across the Asian continent with several millennia of history almost defies generalization.

Religion, qua religion, is thriving. We have seen dramatic growth in numbers and vibrancy of religion generally and Christian churches specifically— both registered and house churches. Believe it or not, today there are more Christians in China than members of the Chinese Communist Party. Clearly, the Gospel has burgeoned in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and the re-opening of churches in 1979.

 But what about religious liberty? Here, there is bad news and good news. The bad news first.

The Chinese constitution protects only “freedom of religious belief” and “normal religious activity.” This generally means state-regulated “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant) have the right to worship unmolested and to proselytize within the four walls of their house of worship — but not on the street corner outside of it. The extent to which various folk religions, other denominational traditions and unregistered religious organizations are free to worship varies from region to region. All of this is to say that some religion is sometimes “tolerated” in China; there is no right to unvarnished religious expression and proselytizing in the public square or to level a robust religious critique of government. Religion is permitted to exist and is sometimes actually promoted (the state often pays for the purchase of land for churches and seminaries) when the state judges it will spawn what the Chinese call the “harmonious society.” Beyond this, groups the state considers “evil religions,” such as the Falun Gong or ones that are deemed to be splitist, like the Tibetan Buddhists, or supporting terrorism, like Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, are often persecuted.

 But here is the good news. China has been working on religious liberty for only about 30 years; in this country, we have been at it for nearly 300 years and still do not always get the church-state equation right. Chinese culture throughout its history has been hierarchical, authoritarian and communal. As a result, the Chinese are not used to thinking about individual rights. They will always be more interested in promoting the “harmonious society” over the sometimes cacophonous clash of individualism, but progress is being made. Seminaries in China — including the Jinling Seminary in Nanjing that we visited — enjoy a modest degree of academic freedom. The printing and distribution of Bibles is rampant. The Amity Printing Company, which we also toured, puts out about 1.5 million Bibles each month, as well as other religious literature. Although retrograde forces exist in the Chinese Communist Party and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, some government officials are  working within the system to help expand the vistas of religious liberty. That our delegation was invited in the first place and given fairly wide latitude to promote religious freedom by critiquing the Chinese system is evidence of this fact.

China does not turn on a dime. It never has in 4,000 years and will not now. Nor will China respond to dire threats and embarrassing diatribes about its shortcomings on the religious freedom front. It must “save face” at all costs.

We need to continue to build relationships with the Chinese — religious leaders and government officials alike. We should press for more religious liberty. The message that I promoted in China is that when religious people are a demonstrable threat — splitist, terrorist or otherwise harmful to the well-being of others — then government can legitimately take steps to rein it in, but carefully and not before. In the end, full fledged religious liberty will actually promote a “harmonious society” more than divisive governmental intervention into the religious demography — favoring some, disfavoring others and persecuting many.

Religious liberty is good for both religion and the state — and that goes for China, too.


J. Brent Walker, BJC Executive Director

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Tayo Jolaoso,
Aug 21, 2010, 4:51 PM
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